Perhaps the best way to understand music is to know what it is not. In the context of traditional Western music theory, music has a set of rules and guidelines that determine what music is and what it is not. For example, a key signature limits the notes a musician can play. If a musician plays outside the key, then those notes are said to be incorrect. If however the composer allows embellishment or allows extra notes as passing notes, then those notes are said to be correct. If the context in which the notes being played determines its “rightness,” then it is safe to conclude that music must have a moral aspect to it.
The title of this post is taken from “Our Native Song” by Dr. Glenn Buhr. In this collection of essays, Dr. Buhr recollects his experiences as a composer, producer, pianist/guitarist, and songwriter. He sheds light on more higher-level thinking relating to the Canadian music industry. Although he discusses many important topics, I do not want to review his book here. Instead, I would like to discuss one point in particular: the idea of morality in music.
Can music be good? Bad? If the fourth note in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony motive was performed as a G instead of an F, would the G be considered a wrong note? Absolutely! Beethoven did not write a G there and thus the piece was performed incorrectly. Not only that but the whole motive is now wrong. Does this wrong note spoil the entire piece? The answer to this question depends on who you ask. Now if the equivalent note switch happened in a more contemporary example, say in “Milestones” by Miles Davis, would the switch still be considered wrong?
For myself, I like to take a more liberal approach to these types of questions. I take this stance as long as I can explain and understand it with context. There are a few ways I would like to answer the morality question. Before doing so, I would like to make my position clear:
- I define music as either a collection of sounds and/or as organized sound.
- Having stated number 1, it is theoretical to view music in the context it was formed.
- Having stated number 2, it is pragmatic to view music as it relates to contemporary and future endeavors.
These are the three approaches I use (at the time of writing) to understand higher-level theoretical music-related questions.
If music is defined as being organized sound, then there are no wrong notes. There are only better/worse fitting notes in the context of the music or overall soundscape. In this interpretation, music is formed by improvisation and is ever-present and ever-changing. Performance can still be dictated by a score, but the score might function as a framework rather than a concrete idea.
As for the instruments that create the music, there are no barriers. Traditional instruments may be replaced by anything that produces a sound. This level of musical freedom allows the musician to be very expressive and attentive. Hyperfocus on the present soundscape is developed as there is a tendency for composers of this music to allow performers much freedom.
This interpretation encompasses music with and without a beat, structure, and written notation. With that being stated, how does this music become involved with morality? For one, better and worse notes can only be interpreted as being such at certain intervals. A note (or sound) played can be judged at the exact moment it was played, at any moment during the performance after the note has been played, and after the performance. So, a note can be deemed a good fit at the moment it was played, a good fit in the moments after the note has been played, and a bad fit for the whole performance (assuming a recording of the performance was made).
If music can be understood by understanding the context in which it was composed, then there are indeed right and wrong notes. The notes can be compared to what the composer wrote on the score. In this interpretation, the composer determines what is and what is not to be played. A composer can write a section note for note and dictate the performer’s actions. A composer can also write a section that gives the performer improvisational freedom.
Although the instrument choices are usually more traditional, the composer can prepare the instruments to fit their piece. One example is John Cage’s “Sonata II” for prepared piano. In this case, the music is dictated and the piano is prepared to produce unconventional sounds. Right and wrong notes, in this case, are determined by the composer’s intention as written in the score. Morality in this interpretation is easier to understand as there are strict right and wrong notes.
It can be quite interesting to view music in a historical context. However, it can provide little value if it is not understood how it relates to present and future music creation. For example, the works of Mozart continue to influence musical endeavors today. Why is this? Simply put, one can analyze a Mozart or Beethoven piece and gain new understanding into how Western tonal music functions. Voice leading, dissonance, parallel 5ths, chord progressions, counterpoint, and rhythmic decisions can all be learned and understood through this disciplined music.
Jumping a few centuries, the music of Tin Pan Alley in the late 19th and early 20th century has helped shaped what Pop music is today. If modern composers want to compose music that is extraordinary, then an analysis of past compositions is a worthwhile pursuit. Even if today’s composers compose music that sounds nothing like the past, a dip into the past will serve their musical vocabulary well.
As music becomes increasingly accessible in both performance and listening, it is worth noting that technological advances have become an important part of the morality question. For example, if a bot composes music, does it still have a moral aspect to it? If musicians use backing tracks in their performances, where is the boundary between right and wrong in the music?
So my final thoughts are as follows. Music is right and wrong according to the context it’s performed in. For example, a correct note in Western music might be seen as an incorrect note in Eastern music and vice versa. Understanding the organized sound, music paradigms, and pragmatic views of music helps us understand the moral aspect in music.
A wrong note is indeed a moral issue as the concepts of wrong/right stem from morality. Perhaps it is best to say that there is no correct answer, but only better/worse answers to the question of morality in music.